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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

October 12, 2013 at 8:00 PM

Buried in digital photos? Organizers to the rescue

Molly Bullard teaches the basics of photo organizing to a free class hosted by the Microsoft Store in University Village Wednesday night. (MÓNICA GUZMÁN / SEATTLE TIMES)

Molly Bullard teaches the basics of photo organizing to a free class hosted by the Microsoft Store in University Village Wednesday night. (MÓNICA GUZMÁN / THE SEATTLE TIMES)

At the back of the University Village Microsoft Store last Wednesday, Molly Bullard was teaching a class to seven eager people.

Brian Daniel inherited 40 photo albums when his mother passed away. Gene and Karen Smith have 30 27-gallon tubs of print photos to transfer to a hard drive. Gretchen Sill, who came with her mother, brought her laptop PC and her husband’s MacBook Pro. Both were stuffed with digital images, many of their 2-year-old son.

Bullard, 43, is a full-time photo organizer.

“If you feel you don’t know where to start, you’re not alone,” she told the class. “Everything’s not getting easier. It’s getting harder.”
It’s getting bigger, too. Humans took an estimated 86 billion photos in 2000. In 2012, we took more than 380 billion, all but a fraction of them with digital devices.

I’d go into my external hard drive to tell you how many pictures we have stored in there, but I can’t get up the nerve. That drive is a disaster — unsure, slow to load, a mess of folders with inconsistent titles. I have no idea what’s what. I get anxious just thinking about it.

We’re drowning in photos. And we need help.

Google the phrase “photo organizing” and the website of the Association of Personal Photo Organizers is the second link. Cathi Nelson of West Hartford, Conn., founded APPO in 2009, a few years after friends convinced her to begin charging for her organizing advice.

Bullard is a member, along with 11 other photo organizers in the state. Over the summer, the association tripled its membership to more than 500 people.

“We are literally creating a new industry,” Nelson said.

Molly Bullard outlines a photo workflow as Gretchen Sill and her mother look on during a photo organizing class at the Microsoft Store at University Village Wednesday. (MÓNICA GUZMÁN / THE SEATTLE TIMES)

Molly Bullard outlines a photo workflow as Gretchen Sill and her mother look on during a photo organizing class at the Microsoft Store at University Village Wednesday. (MÓNICA GUZMÁN / THE SEATTLE TIMES)

It was tough to sit in on Bullard’s class and not wonder how we got here. Wall-to-wall screens paraded the latest Microsoft gadgets and services, and employees passed by in T-shirts of the happiest shades of orange, green and blue. Digital life, as advertised, is supposed to be intuitive. Effortless. Automatic.

We have a long way to go.

Bullard has learned the hard way to be wary of photo-management programs. There are a lot of them, on your drive and in the cloud, and most promise to be everything you’ll ever need.

She used to recommend Picasa web albums to her clients, but when it moved to Google+, it lost the features she liked. Today, news alerts keep her posted on the big photo apps. She never knows when one will change, or even shut down — like the Seattle-based photo app Familiar just announced it will do.

Bullard’s digital advice is not the geekiest. Her clients, 60 percent of whom find her online, are mostly women in their 50s or older blessed and burdened by the visual history of their families and a growing pressure to both share and preserve it. Less than a tenth of her projects in 2012 involved solely digital-photo collections, but most end up at one or another digital device.

She spent Friday morning moving one client’s photos from SmugMug to Windows and understanding how she puts different media on different digital devices, then helping another client organize her iPhoto library.

Bullard taught bare-bones basics at her PC photo-organizing class. And even I, a geeky Mac user, needed them. Like many members of APPO, Bullard pushes three principles that form the basis for good digital-photo organizing:

  • Back things up.
  • Have all your photos end up in one place.
  • Keep your photos somewhere you know you control, like a hard drive.

I used to not care at all about how I stored my digital photos. I’d post the ones I liked to Facebook (which gets 350 million new photos per day) and think that was enough.

Then I had a baby.

Nelson has a theory that when young people start their own families, the instinct to preserve their photos beyond smartphone-camera rolls and fleeting social-media posts kicks in hard. I think she’s on to something.

A couple months before my son was born, my husband got that external hard drive. We committed to dumping all our iPhone photos there and figured that that would solve everything. It hasn’t. But it’s a start.

We haven’t backed up those photos anywhere. One glitch in that hard drive and they’re all gone. Bullard’s after me to get a second hard drive. “So when are you going to do it by — Monday?” she said to me Friday afternoon. She’s insistent, and I guess she should be.

Nelson expects to count thousands of APPO members before too long. My generation, she believes, is only just waking up to the mess of pictures we’re taking, how much they matter and how little time we spend making sure they tell our story.

I think she might be right.

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.

Comments | More in Column, Family, Habits, Nostalgia, Seattle

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